Uganda's Bwindi telecentre collects data on gorillas and targets tourists and locals

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All too often telecentres have seemed like a solution in search of a problem. But Bwindi telecentre is being used to collect conservation information on local gorillas in the dense tropical forest and is targeting its services at both tourists and locals. Balancing Act's Uganda correspondent Esther Nakkazi last week interviewed Lawrence Zikusoka, the Founder and Director ICT for Development Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH)about how it works. He opened the telecentre to tourists going to Bwindi Impenetrable National Park and the community surrounding it.

Qn: This is something new in Uganda. Why did you think of opening a telecentre near Bwindi impenetrable forest?

There is a great need for communication in protected areas. The telecentre was needed for our work in conservation. We needed to send information using the Internet and we also wanted to build capacity in computer applications and use among the local communities around the protected areas.

Qn: What kind of data do you collect from the gorillas and where do you send it?

We collect conservation data from gorillas- compile data on clinical signs of gorillas, on the dung state and then use the internet to transmit the data to the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA).This is time series data, which enables us to monitor the health of the gorillas. We can mitigate disease out breaks among the animals and the public by collecting, analysing, exchanging ideas for diseases from animals to people and people to animals.

We intend to compile this data and build a database so that when a disease occurs there is a long-term database system that can offer a long-term solution for diseases that reoccur both among animals and the communities.

Qn: How do you describe this solution of linking conservation and technology?

This model is called the afromontane forest model where the Bwindi Gorilla clinic and the telecentre will be used for conservation of wildlife using Information Communications Technologies (ICTs) in the telecenter. Another model that could be used is the Savannah park model where data for different animal species is collected and exchanged between conservationists using ICTs. We have created the first model in Uganda.

Qn: What does the whole package contain?

The telecenter offers basic computer training, high-speed wireless Internet access and voice telephony via satellite communication and public health awareness campaigns to improve primary health care to people and animals in and around protected areas while enhancing the conservation of wildlife, natural resources and biodiversity.

Qn: Do you think this is sustainable?

It is and we shall replicate it in other protected areas. It allows for revenue generation through e-business, the local communities can send emails and market their artcraft materials through the Internet.

And although the issue of sustainability runs high for telecenters established in rural areas of Africa, with Bwindi telecenter it is not a problem. We run computer lessons for communities around here and the students pay Shs.100,000 for the six weeks course training containing six packages of computer programmes. The courses are certified by Makerere University and they award the certificates. We have so far graduated 30 students from the community here. Furthermore, tourists who come to use the telecenter pay Shs.500 per minute, five times the amount that the local community pays in a way subsidizing for the locals who pay only Shs.100 per minute. The telecenter is also a multipurpose facility where Non Government Organizations (NGOs) and Community Based Organizations (CBOs) can come and do printing, typing and use the Internet.

Qn: Are the rates affordable even if you say the locals are subsidised?

We are trying to make it affordable and sustainable, the speed is quite fast with a broadband of 128 KB per second, which I believe is fast enough to keep the customer inflow steady and constant.The local community has a bit of money since they benefit from tourists as some are involved in odd jobs at the Bwindi camp and others from Community Based Organisations that get a percentage portion from UWA from the tourist fees.

Qn: Where will you replicate this model? Is it in your vision?

We are going to replicate the model in other national parks in Uganda and later in Africa. It is a successful, sustainable model strategy started by local people and it has the potential to spread out and benefit the local communities, tourists, and institutions. Our vision is to prevent and control disease transmission where wildlife, people and their animals meet while cultivating a winning attitude to wildlife conservation and public health in local communities.

Qn: What challenges are you facing?

We have technology problems and power limitations. There is no electricity here. We use solar power, which requires constant supply of sunlight, and the climate here as you see near the impenetrable forest does not allow that. For a telecenter like this to be run we need a lot of solar panels to run the infrastructure, which we do not have. We also rely on satellite communications.Another challenge is the community, the poorest people in Uganda live next to remote protected areas and they are mostly illiterate and poor. Most of the software and information on the Internet is in English and people cannot speak the language. The software that should be developed should have more pictures than words to cater for minority communities like the Batwa who would benefit from this.